A row of shops in the Burges Conservation area, Coventry.
The Burges Conservation Area in Coventry city centre © Historic England
The Burges Conservation Area in Coventry city centre © Historic England

Researching High Street Heritage Action Zones

How research is adding value to the regeneration of historic high streets.

Whilst use of the term ‘high street’ can be traced back several centuries , the development of high streets, as we would now recognise them, coincided with more people living in urban areas, and the provision of shops and market stalls serving a wider, and growing, population.

However, as these streets developed they offered more than the opportunity to buy goods and became places where people congregated, seeing shopping as a leisure pursuit (English Shops and Shopping, Kathryn A. Morrison, 2003).

In the 1960s, cheaper manufacturing processes and the rise of ‘disposable culture’, meant that retail became increasingly important to what high streets offered the communities they served. It is therefore not surprising that high streets remain defined by their retail offer and the narrative of their ‘death’ is one that uses evidence of shop closures and the fall in retail employment. The reality, however, is that these places have always provided their communities with more than this and so preparing their obituary on the back of falling retail is premature.

High Streets as an 'experience'

Recent evidence points to successful high streets being places where people enjoy spending time, not just money.

See, for example Making sense of mixed use town centres, Turley, 2019; High streets and town centres in 2030, Housing Communities and Local Government Select Committee, 2019; and The Deloitte Consumer Review: Reinventing the role of the high street, 2013).

While the failure of a number of significant high street brands has been well reported, not every enterprise is seeing the same level of decline. The success of some stores, in particular those whose activities that cannot be replicated online (barbers, independent coffee shops, etc.) suggest grounds for optimism for those high streets that are able to offer what is being called ‘experiential retail’. This refers to a place providing more than just a location for buying and selling goods.

…increasingly, what attracts people to the town centre…is no longer just the shops (which have often been substituted by online vendors), but rather the leisure facilities that they can access there, such as cafes, restaurants, cinemas and children’s activities
House of Commons Briefing Paper, Retail Sector in the UK
45% of surveyed users’ primary high street use was non-retail related...High streets are important gathering spaces for marginalised and under-represented groups
Research undertaken on behalf of the Mayor of London in 2017

High streets are one of the few places where all people are able congregate and mix and that makes them incredibly important, not just for local economies, but also for local social cohesion and well-being.

What is the future for our high streets ?

High streets are evolving. Online shopping and out-of-town retail mean that they need to offer people something different to what they did in the latter part of the 20th century.

Whilst that ‘offer’ will vary in different places (what works for Hastings might not work for Blackpool), we can see demand for retail falling and an emphasis on personalised offers to customers, providing goods and services that can’t be got elsewhere.

With funding from central government, High Streets Heritage Action Zones (HSHAZ), the programme developed and managed by Historic England, will see £92m invested into 69 high streets in England (with an additional £3m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund).

As high streets become more about the ‘experience’ and less about simply buying and selling, the quality of the environment and its contribution to that ‘experience’ becomes more important.

The HSHAZ programme will see investment focused on understanding and regenerating historic buildings on the high street, along with investing in the public realm, restoring local character and supporting the features that help make these places unique and attractive for residents and visitors alike.

Success of the programme will not just be measured in terms of historic fabric restored, but in the impact it has on the economic, social and cultural well-being of the place and the people who use it.

The role of research in High Street Heritage Action Zones

Central to the HSHAZ programme is the targeted research that Historic England will be carrying out where the history and evolution of the High Street as it stands is poorly understood or underappreciated. This will build on the success of integrating research into the current Heritage Action Zones, which has provided research to underpin proposals for change, and to link into wider cultural programmes to raise people’s awareness and appreciation of the history of their local areas.

As part of the HSHAZ programme, Historic England is making use of a ‘demonstrator’ project, The Burges in Coventry. By beginning work in The Burges, Historic England is able to use it inform the development of the other HSHAZs. This early start to the work in The Burges means that we are able to highlight the positive link that exists between applied research and regeneration projects and use that to influence other historic high streets.

For the ‘demonstrator’ project £1.9m has been allocated by Historic England, to the Historic Coventry Trust, working in conjunction with Coventry City Council and Coventry Business Improvement District to regenerate The Burges Conservation Area in the city centre. This has also included a programme of research designed to highlight the early origins of the street, which are not immediately apparent from the surviving shop frontages.

The Burges represents a surviving section of one of the historic routes into the city, and now provides one of the main gateways into the commercial heart of the city from the north. With adjoining Hales Street it forms a small conservation area, focused on the eastern side of The Burges, which is lined with an assortment of shop fronts mostly dating from the 20th century. Behind these facades however the buildings range in date from the 18th to 19th centuries, and some have earlier origins with 17th-century timber-framed sections visible from Palmer Lane to the rear.

In support of the work of the Historic Coventry Trust, Architectural Investigators at Historic England have been researching the history of these buildings and undertaking a small Historic Area Assessment, to inform the proposed conservation work and to help promote the heritage of the area.

For the Heritage Open Days in September 2019 a walking tour leaflet was produced which was available throughout the weekend, in conjunction with guided tours by the Coventry Society.

Research into individual buildings has also allowed the creation of a timeline of the owners and occupants of each property on the street – providing an insight into the shops and trades that characterised Coventry in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including tailors, drapers, butchers, jewellers and watch makers. With the support of Historic England’s photography and graphics team, these have been used to create posters which have been hung in each shop window, telling the story of each property over the past few centuries.

This work has provided a valuable tool for the Historic Coventry Trust to engage the general public in the area, and also in providing interest and information for the shop owners and tenants in the streets today. The tenants of 23 The Burges, now operating as Godiva Tailors, were thrilled to learn that their shop had in fact been a tailors in the late 19th century – providing an important connection between the shop as it is today and its occupants 150 years ago.

This work is therefore already making both residents and visitors more aware of the history of The Burges, an appreciation which will serve both to support conservation of the historic fabric of the area, and its economic viability. The research products of this demonstrator project will also form a template for similar work in selected other High Streets as part of the wider project.

The High Street scheme is focused on providing a sustainable future for the area, but in doing so it is illuminating to reach back into the past, to reveal generations of owners and occupants, identify the alterations, small or large, that they made to the buildings, and the wider changes they would have witnessed around them. These are common threads in the evolution of an area to which we can all relate.

About the authors

Owain Lloyd-James MCIfA

Head of Places Strategy at Historic England.

Owain is the strategic lead for the High Streets Heritage Action Zones programme, the £95m fund aimed at regenerating historic high streets in England. He is also responsible for implementing Historic England’s Places Strategy. He started his professional life as an archaeologist. After which he worked for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport working largely on policy related to portable cultural property. Since joining English Heritage (now Historic England) in 2007, he has been responsible for the co-ordination and development of work with local government and national infrastructure, and undertaking research looking at the impact of development on the historic environment.

Rebecca Lane

Senior Senior Architectural Investigator, Historic England

Rebecca worked in the commercial sector for six years as a buildings archaeologist, and latterly as a historic buildings consultant before joining the Architectural Investigation team at English Heritage (now Historic England) in 2010. She is currently responsible for a range of projects looking at Early Fabric in Historic Towns, and has recently drafted the new edition of Understanding Historic Buildings, a guide to good recording practice.

Aimee Henderson

Architectural Investigator, Historic England

Aimee started her career in a conservation workshop; conserving and repairing large-scale museum objects, sculptures and architectural features, before becoming a Heritage Consultant for a large architectural practice. She joined Historic England in 2017 as part of the Heritage at Risk team in the West Midlands, and has recently moved into a new role as an Architectural Investigator. Her first project has been to undertake historic research and building analysis of The Burges in Coventry, as well as supporting Heritage at Risk Projects through research and investigation in order to enhance our understanding of a number of buildings on the HAR Register.